2020 Appalachian Trail Section-Hiker Survey: Resupply and Transportation
Long overlooked in our annual surveys, Appalachian Trail (AT) section hikers were the focus of the Trek’s 2020 survey. We surveyed 448 people, 43 of whom had completed the entire AT in sections, i.e. become “2000-milers” in over a year, and 405 who were working towards this goal. This post focuses on resupply, types of food carried, and transportation to and from the AT, including comparisons to thru-hikers from our 2019 survey. For the nuts and bolts, keep reading, or else skip to the TL;DR at the end.
Four hundred ninety-eight hikers completed our survey. Of these people, 34 hikers in the survey had completed the entire AT, or become 2000-milers, by hiking it in sections. Four hundred fourteen hikers were attempting to complete the AT in sections but had not finished it yet. Hikers who had completed a section with no intention to complete all 2000 miles (59 of them) were not included in the rest of the analysis below. From here on out in this post, “section hikers” refers to people who have completed the entire AT in sections or are working towards that goal and have completed at least some portion of the AT.
We asked section hikers about the primary means they used to resupply during their AT section hikes: relying on stores along the way, mail drops, etc. There were stark differences in how section hikers resupply compared to thru-hikers.
Almost 15 percent of section hikers do not resupply at all, keeping their trips short enough that they pack in and out all of their food. Nine percent of section hikers used resupply strategies that are extremely uncommon for thru-hikers: delivering their resupply boxes by hand (not mail) in advance or relying on a support person or vehicle in some way. About four percent left their own personal vehicle at another point along the section and retrieved items from their own parked car.
About three percent relied on another person—either someone with a hostel or shuttle business, a family member, or a friend—to drive to meeting points and deliver their resupply. This strategy, particularly if it involves frequent meet-ups and slack-packing, is typical for thru-hikers attempting the fastest known time (FKT) record for a “supported” hike, but is unusual for most other thru-hikers.
We asked section hikers to estimate how often they typically resupplied, which included how many days they would go without resupplying if they were doing short sections without resupply. On average, section hikers resupplied every 4.69 days, or between four and five days.
The longest interval a section hiker gave as their average resupply interval was 30 days and the shortest was one day, i.e. slack-packing. This typical resupply interval was not significantly different from the typical resupply interval for 2019 AT thru-hikers, which was 4.33 days.1
This was the first year of surveys where we asked about types of food hikers relied on the most. The majority (71 percent) of section hikers reported relying on some form of dehydrated food as their food of choice. The majority relied on cheap, store-bought dehydrated foods like Knorr sides, powdered potatoes, etc., while a handful (13 hikers) prepared homemade dehydrated meals. About a quarter of section hikers relied primarily on commercial backpacking meals.
Because we did not ask about food choices in past thru-hiker surveys, I can’t compare section hiker to thru-hiker food choices, but I hope to do that in a future post after our next round of thru-hiker surveys.
Another new question for this year’s survey was about modes of transportation hikers used to get directly on or off the AT, since this logistical issue comes up more often for section hikers than thru-hikers. Hikers identified over ten ways they accessed the AT.
I was surprised to see how uncommon hitchhiking was since this is so common for thru-hikers. Section hikers are typically able to plan more carefully for exactly where they will be and when, so it seems hitchhiking simply isn’t as necessary.
I also calculated the mode of transportation hikers said they used the most often to get directly on or off the AT:
The top four modes of transportation used by the most hikers were also the top four that hikers said they used the most frequently:
- A shuttle service specifically for hikers
- A ride with a friend or family member
- Cars the section hiker(s) staged themselves at the ends of the sections
- Out-and-back hiking from the same trailhead
- My resupply recommendations are from the section hiker data above and comparing it to thru-hiker data. If your sections are about a week or less, you don’t need to resupply – carry all your food out with you.
- If your sections are about two weeks or less and you live within driving distance of the AT, consider staging vehicles at the ends and leaving a vehicle in the middle where you can stash a resupply.
- If your sections are longer than that, then your resupply will be pretty similar to thru-hikers—stopping at stores along the way or relying on mail drops if you have dietary restrictions.
- If you don’t have friends and family nearby to help transport you to and from the AT, then your best bet is hiring a hiker shuttle or staging vehicles at the endpoints. This latter option works better for shorter sections and if you have a hiking partner.
- I’m not sure the reason that section hikers do less hitchhiking than thru-hikers, except that they are perhaps able to plan and schedule their transportation more exactly.
Personal Life Note
Sorry this post was so late. A lot has happened in my life in the time since February when I meant to get this post done. In March of this year, I gave a TEDx talk! (Check it out here if you like – its about my research on psychological resilience, not directly hiking-related). In April, I finished section-biking the Natchez Trace Parkway National Scenic Trail. In June, I defended my doctoral dissertation, which was a huge weight off my shoulders. In July, I moved from New Mexico to Arkansas and finished section-hiking The Long Trail in between. And this month (August), I graduated with my PhD in Clinical Psychology and just started a new job with the Central Arkansas VA Medical Center! Its been a whirlwind of a year.
I’ll have one more post from the 2020 section hiker survey that should be coming out very soon.
Many thanks to the section hikers who completed our survey and shared this valuable information, which will help prospective section hikers prepare! I have so much respect for the hikers who had to cut their thru-hikes short due to injuries and/or the COVID pandemic. For those whose hikes are still in progress, I wish you the very best and happy trails! For the 2000 milers who have completed their hikes, especially those who have persevered in this goal since the 1970s, CONGRATULATIONS! You are an inspiration!
Notes for the Nerds
1. Independent samples t-test conducted comparing 2020 section hiker sample to 2019 thru-hiker subsample. Two-sided t = -1.32, df = 432, p = 0.1882, 95% CI = -0.91 to 0.18. Mean days for thru-hiker resupply = 4.33. Mean days for section-hiker resupply = 4.69.
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